The harmonic blacksmith
by Thomas Stiegler
James Brydges (1673-1744), the later Earl of Carnarvon, is the prime example of a corrupt, splendor-loving nobleman of the 18th century.
During the War of the Spanish Succession, he was “Paymaster-General of the Forces Abroad”, which he used mainly to enrich himself.
On the quiet, people talked about the incredible sum of 600,000 to 700,000 pounds that he put aside over a few years. For this he was accused and summoned before the House of Commons, but all accusations bounced off him.
He used a considerable part of his fortune to build Canons, a splendid manor house in the county of Middlesex, which he turned into a centre of the arts.
His “court chapel”, which included some 30 musicians, included the brother of Alessandro Scarlatti. He also gathered around him a circle of progressive writers, including John Gay and Alexander Pope.
G. F. Händel joined this illustrious group in 1717 as “Composer-in-Residence” (court composer). Among the works he was to write here during the two years of his stay were the first version of the oratorio “Esther” and the English version of “Acis and Galatea”, which John Gay translated for him.
It was also in Canons that he composed the “Suites de Pièces pour le Clavecin”, which contain those variations that are now known worldwide under the name of “The Harmonious Blacksmith”.
One day, while Handel was on one of his excursions, he had to flee from a sudden rain shower under the canopy of a smithy. Disgruntled, he looked into the grey veil, behind him the darkness of the workshop.
Suddenly, he heard a melody unknown to him, miraculously harmonizing with the sound of the hammers. He looked around and noticed the blacksmith whistling a ditty while he was working, which was now coming outside.
Used to looking for melodies everywhere, he gratefully accepted this unexpected gift and immortalized it in his work.
For it is only three quarters of a century later that it appears in the book “Reminiscences of Trade”, in which Richard Clark collected his memories and sometimes got into a lot of fantasy.
And the name was also retained for the work, and so today we know it only under the title “The Harmonious Grobschmied”.
The simple beauty of its melody and not least the stories that entwined themselves around its name made the work popular with other composers as well.
So it was already Louis Spohr who used it as a basis for one of his works, as well as Francis Poulenc or the Australian composer Percy Grainger.
This work has also found its way into the guitar literature through M. Giuliani’s “Variazioni su un tema di Händel” op. 107, which he composed in 1828.
But before I go into the work now, I would like to talk about something else briefly.
I know that many non-guitarists and musical amateurs also read here and so I will say a few general words about the term “variation”.
The term variation means to change something given.
To make it easier to understand, we compare the music with our language. We need not go so far as to equate a musical work with a poem, an essay or a novel.
But on a small scale, it makes sense to compare a melody or theme with a sentence. Because then it is easier to understand how a composer works.
Take a simple sentence like, “I’m going for a walk in the rain today.”
If we want to affirm this sentence, for example because we believe it has not been understood, then we repeat it.
“I’m going for a walk in the rain today.” – “I’m going for a walk in the rain today.”
Now, in order to underline or clarify various aspects of his statement, we have to change it.
You can either:
– shorten it to “I’m going for a walk.”
– “I’m going for a walk in the rain this morning and I’m going to dance.”
– or otherwise change at will: “I’m going to stroll in the drizzle.”
As we can see, the basic statement of the movement remains the same (ego, movement, etc.), but nevertheless it changes with each “variation”.
A composer does the same thing and, just like us in language, he can highlight, illuminate and change every single aspect of a theme in different ways.
A work of variations is simply the application of this principle not only to a theme, but to a whole piece.
His op. 107 is a conservative work without surprises or special musical highlights. Nevertheless it is a beautiful piece of music and seems to me to be a good introduction to the world of variations, both for listeners and performing musicians.
I decided today to record Ben Lougheed. Of the videos I know of on YouTube, his seems to me to speak most authentically in the spirit of Giuliani.
The first variation (0:58) brings little new, only the bass plays a few sub-notes.
The second variation (1:46) becomes somewhat more lively, with Giuliani composing triplets and thereby increasing the tempo.
The fourth variation (4:02) is now again under the sign of virtuosity. Not in the sense of a Paganini or Liszt, but anyone who has rehearsed the piece himself knows how difficult it is to make all the notes sound as they are written on paper.
Of course, a minor variation (5:06) should not be missing. On the recording it is very nice to observe how Ben Lougheed does not romantically distort them, but always keeps them in a fixed basic rhythm in the spirit of classical music and interprets them without romantic melodiousness.
Variation Six (7:25) is the typical finale, which is almost always at the end of a variation work. The guitar may shine and throw off its tone cascades. The few small mistakes made by the performer in the heat of the moment should not bother us further.